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Constantly chasing your tail when it comes to your finances? Financial journalist Laura Whateley shares small steps you can take to improve your money habits.

Many of us don’t feel in control of our financial destiny. This might be because we rarely have time to pause and take stock of our finances. Unexpected costs can also crop up – from boiler repairs to car breakdowns, so it’s no surprise that many of us become slaves to unhealthy money habits.

Here, Laura Whateley, financial journalist and author of Money: A User’s Guide, tells us how we can feel more financially empowered, by taking small steps that can yield big rewards over time.

1. Do your money research (it’s worth it)

It may sound like a lot of effort, but it’s worth you setting aside a few hours to get to grips with your pension, savings and (if relevant) your mortgage payments. A quarter of adults have little or no confidence in managing their money, according to a survey by the Financial Conduct Authority in June 2018. Yet knowledge is power. Not only will it help you to save money, you’ll also feel more confident in taking charge of your finances. The Money Advice Service and my book, Money: A User’s Guide, are great places to start.

2. Be savvy with joint finances

Many of us are reliant on our partners to help pay the bills, but remember, unless you’re married, your partner has no legal obligation towards you simply because you cohabit. This means that if you’re informally contributing to someone else’s mortgage, you have no automatic right over the property.

Similarly, if you have a joint account, then your credit histories are linked. This can be helpful if your partner is a sensible spender but if they regularly forget to pay bills, this will affect your own ability to borrow in the future.

Having honest, open conversations about your money is key here; take time each month to check in with each other. Or if that’s difficult, it might be worth trying financial therapy together.

3. Build a safety net for your money

It sounds obvious, but saving is the key to feeling more financially independent. The general rule is to keep three months’ worth of essential outgoings (such as rent or mortgage, bills and food) in an easy-access savings account. This can cover you in the event of an emergency or big life change.

Similarly, having a ‘fun pot’ or rainy day fund can take the pressure off your monthly earnings. Debt charity StepChange suggests maintaining a pot of £1,000. To get there, try the 365-day savings challenge – put aside £1 on a Monday, £2 on a Tuesday, through to £7 on a Sunday before resetting. You’ll have almost £1,500 after 12 months.

4. Start thinking long term for your money

It’s never too early to set yourself long-term goals and a plan to help you reach them. Pensions can seem intimidating, but the government incorporates a tax break to encourage you to set aside money for your retirement – so make the most of it. Check your workplace pension regularly and consider taking out a private one as well.

If you don’t already have an investment portfolio, it may be time to start thinking about investing in a stocks and shares ISA. If you’re willing to stay invested for a number of years, it could result in a decent return. Past performance is never a guarantee of future value, so talk to a financial adviser to get started.

5. Consolidate your credit card debt

The quickest way for you to save money is to reduce unsecured debt, such as credit cards or bank loans. The interest rate on credit cards is so high, that there’s no point in you saving money in an ISA while only making minimum payments toward card debt. Can’t clear it in one go? Take out a 0% balance transfer card – this will move the balance into one place at a 0% rate, to be paid off across a set period of time.

Trying to figure out how much you should be saving? Take a look at the the Your Vitality Future calculator – a handy tool to see how long you could expect to live and how much to save to meet your financial goals in retirement.

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